Boris Johnson has given his strongest indication yet that he could vote against Britain staying in the EU, because he believes this could trigger a second referendum after more far-reaching renegotiations with Brussels.
The Conservative MP and mayor of London is seriously interested in a “double referendum” strategy being floated by Eurosceptics. This would involve campaigners telling the public to vote no in David Cameron’s referendum on the basis that the final decision about Britain’s EU membership would be taken in a second vote.
Cameron is committed only to one referendum. But little has been said about what would happen if Britain voted to leave, how its exit would be negotiated and what relationship Britain would continue to have with the EU; that has led some campaigners to argue that demanding a second referendum would be entirely reasonable.
According to a report in the Sunday Times, which sources close to the mayor describe as reliable, Johnson is warming to the idea of using a no vote to force Brussels to improve its offer to Britain. “We need to be bold, Johnson reportedly told friends. “You have to show them that you are serious.”
Johnson’s position is noteworthy because some Eurosceptics are still hoping that he could be persuaded to take a leading role in the no campaign, which at the moment is lacking a suitable figurehead.
Eurosceptics believe their case has been strengthened after Downing Street accepted at the end of last week that the referendum would take place without treaty change enacting the reforms that Cameron wants to achieve having been ratified across the EU. Cameron thinks the measures he wants will have to be embedded in a new treaty, but he is prepared to hold the referendum provided he has an assurance that treaty change – normally a long and complex process in EU politics – will take place in the future in accordance with his wishes.
In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Theresa May, the home secretary, said a no vote would be unnecessary. Asked about Johnson’s new position, she replied: “I’m approaching, as everyone else in government is, these negotiations that we are undertaking on the basis that we will be able to negotiate a positive deal that we can put to people in the referendum.”
May also said that, even though treaty change might not be achievable by the end of 2017 – the deadline Cameron has set himself for the referendum – the government did anticipate having “a legally binding position on these issues, so that people can have confidence in what they are looking at when they come to vote”.
The suggestion that Eurosceptics should demand a second referendum was floated recently in a blog by Dominic Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, who played a leading role in the campaign to keep Britain out of the euro and who is advising those mobilising for a no vote.
The attraction of a double referendum strategy is that it could appeal both to those who want Britain to remain in the EU on radically revised terms (the no/yes voters, like Johnson potentially) and those who want to leave at all costs (the no/no voters).
As Cummings said in his blog, offering people a second vote could make people more confident about voting no.
He argued that campaigners would be able to say: “If you vote yes, you won’t get another vote for another 40 years – if ever. You should vote no to Cameron’s rubbish deal. If you vote no, you will force a new government to negotiate a new deal and give you a new vote. A no vote is much safer than a yes vote.”
But Kenneth Clarke, the pro-European Conservative former chancellor, said that this argument was “nonsense” and that people would be deeply suspicious of anyone backing a no vote on the basis they might vote yes second time around.
“What on earth does [Johnson] mean by this? It can’t be yes one week and no the next,” Clarke told Sky News’s Murnaghan programme.
“It’s no good thinking that you can have a sensible negotiation and then have a referendum where the public reject it, and then suddenly they will cave in and offer us all kinds of things which will be destruction of the EU if they gave them.”
On Sunday, Alan Johnson, the Labour former cabinet minister who will head his party’s campaign for Britain to remain in the EU, told the Andrew Marr Show that he was not opposed to sharing a platform with Tories during the campaign. “I think people who come from different political persuasions but have the same ideals shouldn’t be afraid to share platforms exactly as they did in ‘75,” he said.
This article was written by Andrew Sparrow, for theguardian.com on Sunday 28th June 2015 13.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010